Jul 122013
 

As I was sitting outside this morning, enjoying the sun, I watched two workers relaying a pavement. After a while I realised there are many similarities between laying down a pavement and training a horse. Every tile is part of the whole, if you leave one out there will forever be a hole, disrupting the connection between both ends. You need some necessary skill and knowledge, familiarity with the technique, to lay an exceptional pavement, but learning by yourself is not out of the question, if your eyes and heart are willing to see your mistakes. Sometimes you might have to go back and repair your error, sometimes you might have to start over from where your pavement was still sound. Just like a tile laying only slightly askew, it might be hard to locate your mistake by sight, but you will feel its presence every time you walk over the path. Training a horse is a process, it takes time and effort, you can’t miss a step and you need to evaluate regularly. Others can help you see the things that need improvement, so don’t turn them away, but remember that perfection is is just a state of mind, and that you can only reach perfection in your own eyes.

20130712-160058.jpgThis view of training as a process, building blocks and making connections, is not a new one. Take a look at the Scala of dressage, of which I prefer the version put into a pyramid form. The rider is added at the bottom, because the rider, being the worker, controls the whole process and carries the responsibility of completing every step and reaching the top. After all riding a horse is a partnership, equal parts of human and horse, so why should the Skala concern only the horse?

Apart from the rider, relaxation is for me the first and foremost step in training. Lack of relaxation is not only signified by tension or nervousness, but also by a certain amount of resistance against being manipulated by the rider. Relaxation means the horse is willing to let go, both in his body and his mind. This is achieved with trust and feel, force will only create submission, never true relaxation. This is where the relationship between horse and rider stands or falls.

Rhythm, or tact, is the basis of the horse’s movement. We all know walk should be four beat, trot two and canter three, but can we feel the difference? Can you help your horse achieve this purity of gaits? Rhythm comes naturally to a horse in freedom, which can easily be messed up by adding a rider on top. Rhythm is for me not only the beat of the gait, but the horse being able and allowed to move at his own natural potential, which means the rider should not get in the way with his own riding, or force the horse to move in an unnatural way.

Contact is not just the tension in a leather strap between the horse’s mouth/nose and the rider’s hands. Contact is the connection between rider and horse, which includes all physical, verbal and ‘mental’ cues, with understanding coming from both. A horse shouldn’t be afraid to take up this contact, and the human should let go of everything standing in his way to achieve it.

Impulsion is both the power and strength of the horse’s body, specifically hindquarters, achieved by correct conditioning, and the horse’s willingness to lend all this power to his rider. Impulsion is what the rider feels in his hands when the horse’s movement flows from back to front without blockages.

I think the term straightness would be better served by balance. As a horse, like every living being, will keep his own preferences for one side or the other, I don’t think any horse can be truly straight. However, the horse can be brought into balance, with assistance from the rider and his acknowledgement of these preferences. Balance is what keeps the horse healthy, an even loading of each foot, each bone, tendon and muscle, will ensure there is no overexertion of either. Balance is physical balance of the horse, but also balance in his training and a resulting balance in his mind.

Back to the original pavement. Every tile is the same size, it doesn’t matter where exactly you put each of them. However, small irregularities might make them serve better when placed at a particular time and place, to improve the strength of the whole. Just like that, horse training is individualized and every horse will need different things at different times. That does not mean, though, that every horse’s path won’t need to be complete and laid entire to reach the end result: collection. Ability to carry both himself and the rider in a way that doesn’t harm him.

So, let’s stop laying only stepping stones and risking the health of our horses. It is each owner’s responsibility to care for their horse’s well-being, and correct, useful training is very much a part of that.

The pyramid in this article is sourced from http://www.ridingart.com/balance.htm.

Jul 122013
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Jul 122013
 

The first question is why do we need anything other than the customary practice we’ve built up over the years? And the answer would be that many of those practices are remnants of a past that was radically different from today.
You only have to go back a little over a 100 years and the horse was still the single most important utility in human society. Large numbers of horses were used commercially, for transport and draft in and around towns and cities, requiring them to be kept locally and intensively. Large numbers of military horses were concentrated in cavalry line accommodation to allow for daily group training or immediate deployment.

Those conditions of use and the utility value of horses joined together to produce an attitude that was completely different to that of today: the following quote is from a recent book by Ann Norton Greene: By century’s end, the people driving the horses were in most cases mere employees, who thought of horses as company property. As managers demanded the hauling of larger and larger loads, the employees sometimes abused the horses to satisfy them. (1) Pretty much the whole focus of horse management during the age was how the greatest use could be made of the horse – and, once the horse is confined in a building behaviour becomes of less importance, except where it either interferes with or restricts use.

Go back further in history and we come to a time in which many horses were kept extensively by nomadic or semi nomadic peoples. Their survival required that they knew the horse in a very different way. Without fences and walls and gates your ability to manage and maintain a herd of horses for the use of your immediate or extended family depended entirely on how well you understand their behavior. Each day your primary task was to make certain the herd had sufficient feed and water, or you could expect them to voluntarily relocate! With the horses constantly moving they tended to stay far fitter and healthier, and there was far less need to protect the tough durable hoof that such movement produces. But competing stallions, geldings and mares need to be effectively managed, and in such a way that organized cavalry maneuvers can be mounted rapidly. Very little of the knowledge from this older past has trickled down, often because it was held by people with no written language – which is a great shame. There may be a lot more useful lessons to be learnt from those more distant times than from much closer history.

And so here we are at the present. We have a very different environment to that of the 1800 or 1900s. The commercial and military use of horses across the developed world has all but vanished. There is no longer the necessity for large groups of horses to be kept so close into towns and cities that they need to be managed intensively and in confinement. By contrast there are greater pressures on real estate, which, for a space hungry animal such as the horse, is a major threat. There are also developing concerns over the environment, requiring that we think about how horses fit into the larger, sustainable, picture. Plus there is the growing movement of people that want to connect with animals in a more open, respectful, practical and ethical way.
Arguably what we need is an up to date and complete philosophy suited to these present needs, rather than a mish-mash of customary practices from the past that reflect a different reality. Behavior based horse management (BBHM) is one attempt to create one.

You’ll note that the word ‘natural’ is completely absent so far – and for good reason, since the meaning is so very open to perception. For example ‘natural behaviors’ would likely refer to those found in an ethogram of a particular feral or semi-feral group – in a single, specific, environment. But whilst free expression of those behaviors has often been seen as synonymous with ‘good welfare’, the behaviors a native pony may need to carry out in the New Forest, or a brumby in the Australian outback, are not necessarily going to be the same as those of a fully domestic horse living in the suburbs of an industrial city. In each case what the horse needs is to carry out a package of behaviors that allow it to become functionally adapted to its specific environment. How natural or not those behaviors are, or by what standard they’re ‘naturalness’ might be judged is really irrelevant.

In any case for most horses it’s the human element within their environment that has by far the most powerful impact. And if the horse is going to survive in a domestic environment its ability to interact with people successfully is essential. There are behaviors that might work for feral horses but that don’t fit the majority of domestic environments. Encouraging the expression of a behavior from the ‘wild’, but that has a negative effect on the ability of the horse to function well in a domestic environment makes no good sense, no matter how ‘natural’ it might be.

BBHM operates on a principle, shared with conservationists and the organic movement (2), that what is needed is a caretaker, whose role is defined as “a human who assists animals in their daily interplay with their environment”. (3)
So the caretaker’s role is to assist the horse to adapt functionally, and fortunately horses are very adaptable creatures. Even so, there are going to be environments to which it is simply not possible for the horse to adapt, and in which it fails to function well. What makes sense in that situation is to acknowledge the reality, and move the horse out and into one where successful adaptation is possible. Across the remaining range of environments how much work the caretaker has to do will depend; in some the horses are going to need a lot of assistance to get through each day, in others far less.

So what would ‘successful adaptation’ mean? Let’s consider a horse kept primarily for riding. The horse will need to be healthy, and both physically strong and fit enough to carry the rider’s weight in comfort and safety. The horse’s senses need to be operating efficiently so that the horse is able to make decisions while being ridden that impact on rider safety. The horse needs to be well rested and in a well balanced emotional and psychological state in order to interact well with both the rider and the riding environment. Effective communication must exist between horse and rider, plus a co-operative attitude in which the horse carries out the movements that are communicated to it willingly – and for that to happen the attitude of the horse to that particular person, and really to people in general, has to be good. And obviously the adaptation should have some duration – so however the horse is kept it has to be sustainable over an extended period.

If they are to assist the horse to adapt functionally caretakers have to be able to design and manage environments that reliably produce the desired outcome. And for it to have widespread value it has to be done at a reasonable cost.

A majority of the horses that are slaughtered each year have failed to adapt in some way. Physical problems such as with feet from insufficient movement, or lower leg lameness’s from being put into work too early, allergic reactions to housing, obesity and other systemic issues from feed problems, plus the raft of psychological problems; dangerous or anti-social behavior, stereotypies, work intolerance, anxiety and depression. The aim of a philosophy like BBHM is to facilitate successful adaptation to the benefit of all involved – horse, people and the greater environment.

By Andy Beck

www.equine-behavior.com

1. Norton Greene, A. (2008) HORSES AT WORK – Harnessing Power in Industrial America. Harvard University Press.
2. Algers, B. (1990) “Naturligt beteende – ett naturligt begrepp?.” Svensk Veterinartidning.
3. Segerdahl, P. (2006) Can natural behavior be cultivated? The farm as local human/animal culture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2007) 20:167-193

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Jul 122013
 

Just checking over the site as administrator, I noticed a couple o f draft articles lurking. They actually go back a couple of years but for some reason never got to the point where the “publish” button actually got pushed! So, with profound apologies to the authors – and I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are, except one of you is Suzanne – I shall do the honours and push that button…